Is there such a thing as a difficult person? 

I’ve spent many years working in hospitals, where people are more likely to be anxious and stressed than almost any other place. Nursing staff often “burn out” due to the stress of their jobs, and this happens across the globe, in Shanhai, the U.S. and the UK.

One great stressor for those of us who face the public daily as part of our work can be dealing with the anger, usually mixed with anxiety and fear, of our clients.

You can often defuse and improve the situation, so that your difficult person becomes – well – a person.

I’m not talking here about someone who comes into your office wielding a knife, or attacks you at a football match. In cases like those, you need to know how to defend yourself without laying yourself open to prosecution. If you think you’re likely to be in this position, take some self-defence training and check your organisation’s policies.

Mostly, though, bad encounters stay at the level of shouting or swearing. Even mild disagreements, with people who just won’t see your point of view, can leave you feel upset, angry and frustrated for the rest of the day. Here are some tips on turning a bad encounter around and walking away feeling good about yourself.

1 Remember that this difficult person is someone struggling to cope, having a hard time or finding life a problem. That may be easier to take into account if you work in a hospital, where you expect people to be anxious, worried, frightened or tense. It’s harder when a client phones you up and abuses you because his laptop won’t work, but still, he’s suffering.

2 Put yourself in his shoes. Remember how it felt last time you were really frustrated and no one would listen? You may have controlled yourself better than he can, but remembering how it felt will go a long way to help you cope. Instead of meeting his anger with your own, you feel some empathy.

3 Listen to him. Let him rant and call you names. As my grandmother used to say, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” He will run out of steam eventually, unless he intends violence. Don’t hang around if you suspect this might be the case. Push your panic button or hit the emergency number on your phone.

4 Make eye contact if you can, though he may avoid this until he calms down. Use an open body posture: keep your arms by your side (crossed arms look defensive). Avoid any gesture that could appear aggressive, such as raising your hands or your voice. Keep a desk between you if you feel anxious, and make sure you are between him and the door, if he’s in a room alone with you. Try to move into a position where you are both facing the same way: standing face to face can be too assertive at this stage.

5 Walk away if it really gets too much for you (after all, you may be having a bad time yourself that day). Leave before you lose your own temper or feel so upset you can’t bear it. Say, “I will find someone else who can help you,” or simply “I’m sorry, I can’t deal with this now,” and leave. Then find someone who will help.

6 As you listen, really listen. Go beyond the abuse and try to hear what he’s saying. Keep trying to make eye contact, and when you do, nod to show you’re listening.

7 When he slows down, talk quietly to him. Tell him you’re sorry he feels bad, or if he has a genuine complaint, apologise for the mistake. Check that you understand his problem. Ask a question, to make sure you’ve got it right.

8 Solve his problem if you can.

9 When all is quiet and calm, point out firmly that his behaviour was inappropriate and unacceptable, and lay down the rules for any repeat performance: such as immediately calling the police.

10 Talk to a colleague, friend or senior person, to review what happened and deal with the feelings you may have afterwards.

More communication skills posts:

How to Give Advice: Communication Skills That Work

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Best Tips for Better Understanding

See Things From His Point of View: Resolving Conflicts

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